What are the best gay-friendly countries to retire/move to?
We’re often asked about racial/religious tolerance and about how accepting the locals are in various countries toward LGBT lifestyles. While you’ll typically find a warm welcome in any of the countries we suggest for expat living, here’s what our experts on the ground had to say about the countries they live in.
Wendy Justice – IL Southeast Asia Correspondent
Vietnam has the most progressive laws in Southeast Asia for LGBTs. There are no laws prohibiting same-sex relations and there never have been. Additionally, gay marriages are now legal in Vietnam, though they don’t carry all the legal protections that opposite-sex marriages have. The Vietnamese people overwhelmingly support further liberalization of the laws, and I’ve read predictions that it will be the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize full rights to same-sex couples in terms of inheritance, benefits, and adoption.
Gay Pride parades are held throughout Vietnam every year and get strong turnouts, not only from the gay community but the community at large. Vietnam also allows gender-reassigned individuals to change their gender on their official documentation. Other countries, such as Thailand, may have a more visible gay community, but in terms of official and legal recognition, Vietnam is leading the region. Any LGBT expats coming to Vietnam will feel welcomed and accepted.
Valerie Fortney Schneider – IL Italy Correspondent
Predominantly Catholic Italy may seem conservative on the surface, but acceptance has risen dramatically in recent years, along with pride marches and civil union reception catering. Same-sex activity has been legal in Italy since 1890. Italy became the third country in the world to recognize one’s right to change gender in 1982. Civil unions are legal and recognized, with accompanying rights to shared property, pensions, and inheritance. While Rome, Milan, and Florence are the most openly accepting cities, places like Bologna, Bari, and Gallipoli in Puglia are also known as being gay-friendly.
Jason Holland – IL Roving Latin America Editor
Although Mexico is a fairly conservative country in many ways, it is friendly to the LGBTQ+ community. You can find LGBTQ+ expats and travelers in many locations around Mexico but there are some spots that are more popular than others and have become destinations, including Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast, which is probably the best-known.
Kathleen Evans – IL Coastal Costa Rica Correspondent
Although LGBTQ+ rights have improved significantly over the last few decades in Costa Rica, at this time, the government does not recognize same-sex marriage. However, this should change in the coming year. Big news broke August 9, 2018 when a ban on same-sex marriages was declared unconstitutional and discriminatory in Costa Rica by the Supreme Court. The court ruling gives lawmakers 18 months to adjust the current law. It is expected that if the legislature does not change the law within the time frame, the ban will cease to exist and gay marriage will automatically become legal. It is strongly backed by Costa Rica’s new president, Carols Alvarado, elected in April 2018.
In 2013, national legislation was passed which offers a limited form of domestic partnership benefits (such as healthcare) for same-sex couples.
Costa Ricans are warm and welcoming to those who visit their country and that includes the LGBTQ+ community. Keep in mind the country as a whole is socially conservative, so discretion is always suggested. The city considered the most open is Manuel Antonio with a multitude of tours, bars, etc. catering to LGBTQ+ needs. There are also concentrations of hotels and bars in San Jose and in suburban Escazú—all discoverable with an online search.
Tricia Pimental – IL Portugal Correspondent
Don’t expect to find rainbow flags flying in the conservative rural areas of Portugal, but that doesn’t mean that the LGBTQ+ community is not welcome. In fact, Lisbon and Porto have gay scenes, and the same is true of beach towns, particularly in cities in the southern region of the Algarve. Civil unions have existed for years, and same-sex marriage had been permitted since 2010. Gays and lesbians may also adopt, although the acceptance level is less for that than for marriage, due to the country’s historic view of traditional family structure.
Laura Diffendal – IL Belize Correspondent
Since the August 2016 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the sodomy ban, LGBTQ+ organizations have become more visible and active. Young LGBTQ+ Belizeans have also been inspired to come out.
Belize has long been a popular tourist destination for LGBTQ+ people. There are many LGBTQ+ events and also a pride parade that started in 2017. San Pedro Town is considered to be the most gay-friendly destination for tourists in Belize.
There are a lot of Facebook groups for gays in Belize. They have thousands of members and a lot of events throughout the country. As a side note, funny enough we purchased our first hotel from a lesbian couple, the second hotel from a gay couple, and recently hired a gay manager. I don’t think it is a problem here at all.
Jessica Ramesch – IL Panama Editor
All of the gay and lesbian expats and visitors to Panama I have spoken to say they find Panamanian society to be welcoming, even in smaller towns. A new gay marriage proposal is a good example of how progressive Panama is. The country tends to rank high on political and civic freedom indexes, and there is an established and visible LGBTQ+ community. In 2006, Panama ruled that transgender citizens who had undergone sex assignment surgery could change their legal gender on birth certificates. Two years later, an antiquated law criminalizing same-sex sexual activity was abolished.
Following the recent same-sex marriage proposal, there’s been a lively debate in Panama. There was a march showing support (led by Panama’s First Lady), and later those opposed to redefining marriage also held a march. In January 2018, a government official signaled that Panama would likely comply with a landmark Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling that recognizes same-sex marriage and transgender rights, and Vice President Isabel de Saint Malo added that the Panamanian Constitution guarantees the principle of non-discrimination, but unfortunately we have had no rulings on this nor three same-sex marriage petitions to courts yet.
Nonetheless, we had a calendar of gay pride events in June 2018, with a flag in Plaza Catedral, site of the city’s “first cathedral” (catedral metropolitana) as well as many others, particularly in the arts/tourist sector of colonial Casco Viejo.
Nancy Kiernan – IL Colombia Correspondent
During the past five years, Colombia has increasingly become a gay-friendly country. They legalized same-sex marriage in April 2016. Same-sex couples who were married abroad are now entitled to the same visa, healthcare benefits, inheritance, and pension rights as heterosexual spouses once they take a stamped marriage certificate and identification papers to their nearest designated office in Colombia.
These advances in LGBTQ+ equality led to Colombia’s nomination as the “best emerging LGBT tourist destination” for 2017 by the FITUR, an annual International Tourism Trade Fair held in Spain.
One entrepreneur from the U.S. put the pieces together and created Out in Colombia Travel, an LGBT travel and tourism agency whose goal is to create life-changing and memorable experiences for gay travelers and to help create cross-cultural exchanges that unite the global LGBT community.
I have met several gay couples who have either visited Colombia or chose to live here. They all tell me that they have had wonderful experiences and have received a warm reception into the local Colombian community.
Don Murray – IL Riviera Maya Correspondent
Mexico’s laws regarding this issue closely approximate the laws of the U.S.
In the summer of 2015, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that the definition of marriage included same-sex couples. In 2016, they also ruled in favor of same-sex adoptions and a constitutional amendment prohibits any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Socially, there are isolated pockets of social resistance but for the most part, it is no big deal to be LGBTQ+ in Mexico.
Donna Stiteler – IL Cuenca Correspondent
Cuenca is a gay-friendly community and there are many couples here. Women, in particular, have found the community very accepting. Because it’s a cultural center, there’s more of an understanding of different lifestyles and although it is 80% Catholic, there’s really not a determinable religious discrimination. I have gay friends who are writers, artists, and musicians who have no problem fitting into the culture. It just seems to be pretty much a non-issue here.
John Michael Arthur – IL Contributor
Costa Rica is a very LGBTQ+ tolerant country. Same-sex relationships are openly accepted by the younger generations. The older generations are very tolerant.
In general Costa Ricans don’t want to see a lot of public displays of affection—gay or straight— so that aside there are no problems. Even in our small town, there are numerous gays, and most are completely open in their lifestyle. All our neighbors know who we are and we have never felt the slightest prejudice. We regularly attend parties that are a complete mix of gays and straights. Everyone knows who everyone is and everyone acknowledges it without any prejudice. The Parade of Diversity (Gay Pride) in San José is attended annually with great positive news coverage. The capitol house flies the Diversity Flag regularly. Last year there were close to 80,000 people in attendance at the parade, fully half being straight supporters of the cause.
The recent presidential election had, at its forefront, the issue of gay marriage; the pro-gay candidate won by a large majority. The issue of same-sex marriage is now before congress for approval as a formality. The laws have already been changed to allow equal rights to same-sex partners in all medical/hospital settings. Even without the country currently performing same-sex marriage, they accepted our marriage certificate from the USA. Therefore, we are recognized as a family unit and covered by the social medical system (the CAJA) as a gay couple.
Jim Santos – IL Contributor
While Ecuador does not recognize same-sex marriage, they do recognize gay couples as common-law or civil union couples. So if you are in a relationship, you can still participate in things like the national health care system or other legal contracts with all the rights of a married couple. According to the Constitution of Ecuador, discrimination over sexual preference is against the law. When discussing this with gay expats, I’ve been told they feel that most Ecuadorians are very accepting, although there are some sections of the larger cities that they avoid.
I would have to say that in our travels around South America, Uruguay is by far the most gay-friendly nation. Uruguay was the first South American country to make same-sex marriage legal, and the society is very progressive. The country is almost libertarian—the rule seems to be as long as you are not hurting anyone, you can live your life however you like.
Sharyn Nilsen – IL Contributor
I have several gay friends and they have never had any problems living abroad. One of them is a headteacher at one of the biggest private language schools in HCMC. He’s openly gay, so I’d say the fact that they don’t discriminate is a pretty good indicator. He now has a long term Vietnamese partner. I also have two female Vietnamese friends who are a couple, so while I don’t think that’s super common, they are quite open about it and no-one blinks an eye.
Rachel Devlin – IL Contributor
Chiang Mai, Thailand has such a large and diverse group of expats. There is an official LGBTQ+ social group as an offshoot of the Chiang Mai Expats Club. Sexuality is not really an issue in Chiang Mai for expats in any way whatsoever. Interestingly, as I work on the Expat Club welcoming committee, there has definitely been an increase of gay & lesbian couples moving from America to Chiang Mai within the last year.
In Thailand, it is not illegal to be gay. In fact, gay marriage ceremonies are legal. However, at this stage, gay marriages cannot be legally registered with government offices.
Stewart Richmond – IL Contributor
France is traditionally liberal in its attitude towards same-sex relationships with all sodomy laws repealed in 1791. In 2013 France legalized same-sex marriage. Paris has been named by many publications as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, with Le Marais, Quartier Pigalle, and Bois de Boulogne being said to have a thriving LGBTQ+ community and nightlife.
The age of consent for both heterosexual and gay sex is 15 in France.
Michael Cullen – IL Contributor
Thailand is one of the most inclusive countries in Southeast Asia and has a thriving LGBTQ+ scene. It’s often called “the gay capital of Asia.” Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1956 and in 2005, the Thai Defense Force lifted its ban on LGBTQ+ people serving in the military.
With around 95% of the country’s population identifying as Theravada Buddhists, these beliefs—in particular, the religion’s approach to tolerance— influences Thailand’s stance on homosexuality. And together with a general avoidance in Thai culture of confrontation and victimization, society has been created in which being gay is much less of a taboo than in many western countries, and of little issue to most Thais and certainly foreign visitors. The key phrase is “tolerance“ and not “acceptance“. There remain many social taboos against homosexuality, especially in areas outside the major urban centers.
In the major urban centers, especially those places frequented by tourists, and in entertainment districts, LGBTQ+ travelers should have no trouble with being open about their sexuality. There are many gay-friendly hotels, nightclubs, and resorts in all the major tourist destinations. The ‘Land of Smiles’ is an open and tolerant country.